It’s no surprise that the Trump administration is pressing its efforts to quash affirmative action in admissions, rescinding Obama-era policy aimed at promoting diversity in education and instead bolstering race-blind admissions in schools at all levels.
After all, Attorney General Jeff Sessions last year took aim at affirmative action, announcing that the Department of Justice would investigate and sue institutions of higher education that it determined had discriminated against white applicants in admissions decisions. And President Trump seems obsessed with undoing just about every single thing Barack Obama did when he was president.
Race-based affirmative action has been losing support in the United States for some time with other “color-blind” methods of admissions gaining ground in the courts. But there are still compelling arguments for why affirmative action in admissions based on race is still needed — not only to reverse historical discrimination but also because research has shown that diversity in schools helps low-income students as well as wealthier ones. This remains true even though U.S. public schools have become more segregated by race and class over the past two decades.
Why would a nation that has based its greatness (at least it used to) on its melting pot of cultures NOT want diverse classrooms and NOT take overt action to achieve that goal?
The notion that college admissions are based on some sort of meritocracy is, well, silly. The students with the biggest advantage are those from wealthy homes, who have had the luxury of attending well-resourced schools and enjoying a variety of learning experiences outside of school that the poor and even middle-class can’t afford. Those things clearly give them an edge in getting into selective magnet schools and colleges and universities.
There’s also the super-wealthy who can donate millions to a college and win admissions for a child. Dan Golden, author of “The Price of Admission: How America’s Ruling Class Buys Its Way into Elite Colleges — and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates,” wrote that Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, was admitted to Harvard after a multimillion-dollar pledge by his father, which the Kushner Cos. denied. Still, Golden’s book includes administrators at Kushner’s high school who said he was not a stellar student and that they were surprised he had been accepted to Harvard.
Richard Rothstein, a former New York Times national education writer and senior fellow emeritus at the Economic Policy Institute who wrote “The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America,” has written extensively about why affirmative action based on race remains important, especially for African Americans. He takes issue with those who have supported “color-blind” affirmative action that relies on socioeconomics. In 2014, he wrote (and you can read the entire piece here):
Even for low-income families, other groups’ disadvantages — though serious — are not similar to those faced by African Americans. Although the number of high-poverty white communities is growing (many are rural; solicitude for these prompted Texas Republicans to support the Ten Percent Plan), poor whites are less likely to live in high-poverty neighborhoods than poor blacks. Nationwide, 7 percent of poor whites live in high-poverty neighborhoods, while 23 percent of poor blacks do so. Patrick Sharkey’s “Stuck in Place” showed that multigenerational concentrated poverty remains an almost uniquely black phenomenon; white children in poor neighborhoods are likely to live in middle-class neighborhoods as adults, whereas black children in poor neighborhoods are likely to remain in such surroundings as adults. In other words, poor whites are more likely to be temporarily poor, while poor blacks are more likely to be permanently so. . . .
Certainly, Hispanics suffer discrimination, some of it severe — police harassment of black and brown adolescents, accompanied by high incarceration rates, and the nativist-driven rollback of bilingual education programs come to mind — but the undeniable hardship faced by recent, non-English speaking, unskilled, low-wage immigrants is not equivalent to blacks’ centuries of lower-caste status. The problems are different, and the remedies must also be different, including in some, but not all cases, affirmative action. It is also appropriate for universities seeking diversity to make special efforts to recruit and accept Hispanic students, but these efforts should not be confused with the proper constitutional requirement that universities extend preferences to African Americans to repair centuries of state-sponsored exploitation.
We cannot reasonably aspire to a meritocracy where all children — poor, middle-class, and affluent — have equal chances of landing in adulthood at every point in the social-class distribution. Higher social-class status will always confer advantages on children; we can only hope to mitigate them. A more realistic aspiration would be to assist children of African Americans who have climbed a few steps up the ladder in climbing a bit further, and in so doing providing leadership to the black community as a whole.
Yet knowing merely that middle-class African Americans have accumulated less wealth, live in less-advantaged neighborhoods, or more recently joined the middle class does not itself justify granting them preferences. Many opponents of affirmative action believe these disparities are either blacks’ fault or the result of ill-defined, unfortunate historical experiences for which blame can no longer be assigned. Affirmative action’s defense requires showing how these disparities result from clear constitutional violations — what Justice Ginsburg calls an “overtly discriminatory past, the legacy of centuries of law-sanctioned inequality.” The defense also requires showing that these violations’ effects have not so dissipated over time that a victim class is no longer identifiable or a remedy practical. An 1883 Supreme Court opinion pontificated that “when a man has emerged from slavery . . . there must be some stage in the progress of his elevation when he takes the rank of a mere citizen and ceases to be the special favorite of the laws.” Two decades after emancipation, the Court’s view that the stage had already arrived was ridiculously premature. Is it still? . . .
Why are there too few middle-class African Americans in selective universities, and what is the moral, legal, and historical justification for putting a thumb on the scale to compensate? Are direct effects of past discrimination still so pervasive that the 14th Amendment requires affirmative action?
Answers cannot duck the need to review the history of slavery, Jim Crow, and state-sponsored exploitation of African Americans, and how effects of these policies persist. Consider the example of most relevance to middle-class African American enrollment in selective universities — the family wealth disparities by race described above. Discussions of affirmative action are empty without the background of how these wealth disparities arose.
In the last century, federal agencies subsidized white suburban development by guaranteeing loans to mass-production builders who created places like Levittown on Long Island, Lakewood in California, and similar uncounted suburbs in metropolitan areas nationwide. Homes were inexpensive and theoretically affordable to black and white workers alike, especially to returning World War II veterans. But the Federal Housing and Veterans administrations encouraged and usually required these builders to refuse sales to African Americans. Whites who were permitted to buy benefited from ensuing decades of equity appreciation; this wealth helped finance college for their children and was later bequeathed to them. Black families, prohibited by federal policy from buying into these initially low-priced suburbs, lost out.
Levittown is a nationally representative example. The federal government guaranteed construction loans for Levitt & Sons with a whites-only proviso. William Levitt sold his houses to whites beginning in 1947 for $7,000, about two-and-a-half times the national median family income. White veterans could get VA or FHA loans with no down payments. Today, these homes typically sell for $400,000, about seven times the median income, and mortgages typically require down payments of up to 20 percent. Although African Americans are now permitted to purchase in Levittown, it’s become unaffordable. By 2010 Levittown, in a metropolitan region with a large black population, was still less than 1 percent black. White Levittowners can today easily save for college. Blacks denied access to the community are much less likely to be able to do so.
Government policy also impeded African Americans’ ability to accumulate wealth from saved income. As documented last year in Ira Katznelson’s “Fear Itself,” the New Deal, from undisguised racism and compromise with Southern Democrats, prevented African Americans from realizing the benefits of labor-market reforms like the minimum wage, Social Security and the National Labor Relations Act by excluding occupations (such as agriculture and domestic service) in which African Americans predominated. The government certified unions for exclusive bargaining even when unions barred African Americans from membership or restricted them to the lowest-paid jobs. These policies further contributed to differences in white and black workers’ wealth accumulation, and their ability to share that wealth with their college-going heirs.
Researchers have shown that diverse classrooms, however they got that way, are better for all students. The nonprofit Century Foundation published a list of academic and cognitive benefits of schools that are diverse by race and socioeconomics. I am publishing it, with permission:
On average, students in socioeconomically and racially diverse schools — regardless of a student’s own economic status — have stronger academic outcomes than students in schools with concentrated poverty.